Never Too Late to Go Back to School

Helpful tips for nontraditional students

Whatever it was that pushed you to make the decision to return to school—you’re ready to change careers, you’d like to advance in your field, you want to complete a degree you began years ago, you’re looking for personal enlightenment, or you finally have the time and disposable income to devote to your passion—congratulations on your decision to re-enter the academic world.

Overcoming Roadblocks

Chances are that you’re a little anxious about returning to school as a nontraditional student. It might help to know that you are not alone. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education show that adult students are the fastest growing educational demographic, with the numbers steadily increasing. In 1970, 28 percent of all college students were 25 years of age or older. In 1998 the number of adult learners had increased to 41 percent. The Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education (ANTSHE) reports that today’s students who are 25 or over make up as much as 47 percent of the new and returning student population on many college campuses.

This statistic reinforces the idea that you are never too old to return to school, and once you’re there, you will be in good company with other adults. One way of looking at it is like this: You’re going to be the same age regardless, won’t it be nice to be your age and have a fulfilling degree?

Another source of anxiety might be whether or not you have the tools to be successful. In a short answer, yes, you do. Your younger counterparts might be more up-to-date on technology (laptops, smart phones, podcasts), but you have more life experience and can offer your younger peers a different perspective. (Don’t worry. You’ll soon be up to speed on the digital age.) You’re also more likely to be focused on your studies. Like fine wine, your maturity will be one of your best assets as you re-enter the academic world. Use it to your advantage!

Decisions, Decisions

Once you’ve made the decision to return to school, the good news is that your options are endless (the sky’s the limit). The bad news is that your options are endless (where do you even begin?)

Start by researching the entrance requirements at local schools—some schools even have special requirements for adults—so once you’ve determined which school(s) interest you, call the admissions office and ask about these requirements. Be sure to ask about federal and local grants, low-interest loans, and scholarships as well. Colleges at all levels offer programs for returning students. There are work experience scholarships and other special types of funding available – find out about them through local school counselors and Financial Aid Offices, and check with your employer for assistance with tuition payment programs. 

Once you’ve narrowed down where you want to go, you need to figure out what you want to do. Research the recommended reading lists for undergraduate and graduate students in the different fields you’re considering. A good litmus test is whether or not your interest in the subject is more than a surface interest. Are you excited to learn more? If so, enroll in a lower level (required) course for the degree. Start by taking a few part-time courses instead of a full credit load to ease back into the academic world.

Colleges and universities want all of their students to succeed and are making it convenient for adults to return to school through distance learning opportunities, night and weekend classes, and entrepreneurial programs that fit their unique needs. Distance learning makes it possible for you to learn at your own pace from the comfort of your home, while traditional classroom-based learning experiences give nontraditional students the opportunity to interact and build face-to-face relationships with their teachers and fellow students. Both can be valuable. The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities’ 17 schools and colleges each has its own degree programs and admission and graduation requirements. However, anyone can take credit courses at the University, regardless of whether or not you are in a program. If you take an undergraduate course and are not officially admitted to a program, you are considered a “non-degree” or a “non-admitted” student and are assigned to the College of Continuing Education (CCE). CCE degree and certificate programs are designed for the returning learner. To take individual courses, no application or transcripts are required. Grades will be listed on a U of M transcript. Credits may count toward a degree program should you be admitted to one in the future (however, to ensure these credits fulfill your prospective program’s requirements, please consult with that program ahead of time). Explore your options at

At Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs, the main focus is on the adult learner and providing personal, ethical, professional and innovative education. The areas of study include Saint Mary’s Graduate School of Education, Graduate School of Health and Human Services, and Graduate School of Business and Technology (popular programs in this school include the M.S. in Project Management and the Master of Business Administration (MBA) program). The School of Professional Programs offers Bachelor of Science completion programs, giving you the opportunity to take the valuable life experiences you have and apply them as part of your degree credits. Additional benefits include affordable tuition and experienced professors, many who work in their prospective areas of expertise. For more information, visit

Tools for Success

How do you balance it all? There’s no easy answer to this question. There will undoubtedly be times when you will have to balance schoolwork with family and job obligations, but adults—more than any other student—are heading into the situation well equipped to handle the difficulties of time-management.

Become familiar with the resources available to you. Attend orientation, read the catalog, and meet with your adviser.

Yasin Alsaidi, director of admission for the Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs – Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, encourages adult learners to establish a support community to avoid feeling overwhelmed. “Family, friends, colleagues and especially classmates can help you through the initial period of adjustment until it becomes routine. Before you know it, you’ll have a semester behind you and you’ll be dealing better with the workload.”

In addition, look for ways to connect through clubs and student groups, and make sure you utilize student services like co-op options and study skills seminars.

Once you’re enrolled in classes, organization is key, especially if you have kids at home or are continuing to work while going to school. Don’t try to be a superhero at home. You have a lot on your plate, it’s OK to delegate certain tasks to the kids or your partner. And don’t forget to designate a space specifically for studying, a space that’s off-limits to everyone else in the house.

Stay organized by taking some time to map out your semester clearly at the start, ensuring you’re aware of deadlines well in advance so nothing sneaks up on you. Be clear about what you want to accomplish each day, and stay focused. Break long-term deadlines into short-terms tasks to prevent feeling overwhelmed. And make sure your living habits are healthy — eat well, exercise, stay hydrated, and get enough rest!

No matter your age or where you happen to be in your life journey, you can be successful in school. When you have your degree, you will not only be more well-rounded in that particular area of study, you will also have a great sense of pride knowing that you bravely knocked down roadblocks to accomplish an impressive goal.